For the second straight year, I’m sitting at home on New Year’s Day watching bowl games not involving Minnesota, and that’s a shame. It’s nothing different than any other year in my lifetime, but it’s still a shame.
As I type, our three biggest regional, Big Ten rivals are all playing on television: Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. Meanwhile, the Gophers are licking their wounds from a disappointing loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl and already looking ahead to next year, which is now this year on the calendar.
But there are silver linings for us Gopher fans, right? Indeed, there are. In Jacksonville at the Gator Bowl—the destination we were most realistically dreaming of—there’s a steady rain falling, and one of the announcers said the sun hasn’t been out in three days. It’s not much better today in Tampa or Orlando either, so the Sunshine State is apparently a big letdown.
In addition to that, the match-ups weren’t very favorable for our conference participants. Iowa and Nebraska were significant underdogs, and Wisconsin was favored against South Carolina but by the slimmest of margins. So it’s looking like another two-win bowl season for the Big Ten.
Looking back, looking ahead
Once the sting fades from the second straight bowl defeat in Houston, 2013 will definitely be remembered as a good year for Minnesota—a solid stepping stone in the Jerry Kill era. In his three years, the team has finished 3-9, 6-7, and now 8-5. Nine wins overall would have been big, darn near historic, but eight is cause for at least a minor celebration.
Here are some things that will stick with me from this year:
• The four straight Big Ten wins. From Oct. 5 to Nov. 23, the Gophers managed to go 49 days between losses. Sure, there were two bye weeks in that span (apparently, the NCAA has no shame in trying to maximize revenues), but that’s damn near two moon cycles and half a semester with nothing but wins to celebrate.
On the road against Northwestern, the shocker at home against Nebraska, on the road against Indiana, and at home against Penn State, the Gophers ripped off four straight conference wins in the same season for the first time in 40 years!
• The even more historic win against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers had beaten the Gophers 16 straight times dating back to 1963, and Minnesota’s last victory in the series came in 1960—on the way to the most recent of its seven national championships. But on Oct. 26, the Gophers claimed a signature 34-23 win over the Huskers, causing a few thousand fans, most of whom were not alive in 1960, to rush the field.
• The fans and state rallying around Coach Kill. Kill’s seizure problems resurfaced again this year, and he was unable to make the trip to Michigan for the Oct. 5 game. That caused a local columnist to suggest that the head coach needed to step down. Instead, he took a couple weeks off to recalibrate and adjust medications, then returned to full duty while coaching on game days from upstairs.
Athletics Director Norwood Teague, President Eric Kaler, and a vast majority of Gopher fans stood behind their coach, and at the end of the year Kill was named a Regional Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association.
And a few more miscellaneous thoughts and statistics:
• I wasn’t aware of this until the second half of the bowl game against Syracuse, but at that point Kill’s record at Minnesota when trailing at halftime was 0-20. Unfortunately, and amazingly, that mark is now 0-21.
• That second bye week needs to go out the window. The Gophers began their season on Aug. 29 and played their last Big Ten game on Nov. 30. Compare that to 1960, when the season began on Sept. 24 and wrapped up on Nov. 19, before Thanksgiving.
• As a corollary to that last point, we all need to use some restraint when bragging about bowl appearances and wins in a season. It’s possible to make it to a bowl game with only two conference wins, sad but true. And everyone was fond of pointing out that the Gophers almost made it to nine wins this year for only the second time since 1905. True enough, but from 1906 to 1941, they played more than eight games total only once.
• It will be sad to see some of the seniors go. Most notable in that group are All-Americans Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, who are both likely to be playing on Sundays. Hageman, in particular, made visible improvements every year, and will probably be drafted by the end of the second round.
Other key cogs have been Aaron Hill and Roland Johnson on defense, and Ed Olson, Mike Henry, and Derrick Engel on offense. Fortunately, the Gophers are a young team, and there’s a lot of talent in the pipeline.
• AND… On this day in not-so-recent history:
On January 1, 1962, quarterback Sandy Stephens led the Golden Gophers to a 21-3 victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl. The Bruins tallied an early field goal, but after that it was all Minnesota. The All-American Stephens first scored from a yard out, then led the Gophers on a 75-yard touchdown drive before halftime. He capped the scoring with a two-yard run in the second half, sending the Gophers and their fans home from Pasadena happy.
It can happen, Gophers fans; it just hasn’t in a long time. Maybe next… make that this year!